Mark Story: Barnhart says UK football must 'earn respect' but empty seats a larger problem

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 6, 2012 

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart joined Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Thursday morning for a news conference dealing, in part, with how to handle traffic congestion around Commonwealth Stadium on UK football game days.

I was there, so I tweeted a few quotes about traffic.

The wiseacres on Twitter replied by asking, 'What traffic congestion around Commonwealth Stadium?'

Barring some kind of massive in-season sales surge, it seems certain that the 2012 Kentucky home football season will be the least attended since Commonwealth was expanded to a capacity of some 67,000 in 1999.

In late August, the Herald-Leader's Jennifer Smith reported that UK season ticket sales stood at 37,154. Since stadium expansion, the smallest number of season-ticket holders in Commonwealth was 42,974 in 2006.

Barnhart said Thursday that, with student season tickets counted in, there were "around 40,000" season seats sold going into Saturday's home opener with Kent State.

With Joker Phillips having lost 15 of his last 23 games as UK head man after last Sunday's spanking at Louisville, I asked Barnhart how alarmed he is over ticket sales having fallen so steeply.

As recently as 2009, Kentucky sold 56,440 season tickets.

The UK AD says he believes the drop is based on more than just fan displeasure with Phillips and Kentucky football's recent performance, though he acknowledges that is part of it.

"I won't say displeasure," Barnhart said. "I think we've got to earn respect as we do things on the field. Clearly, we had a pretty good run, we were growing our football program and going to bowl games and (last year) we took a little step back in terms of our record and our offense as well."

Last season, Kentucky did not put an entertaining offense on the field, averaging 15.8 points and 259.8 yards a game. "Offense sells tickets," Barnhart said. "When offense is struggling a little bit, people get disenchanted real quick."

Noting the strong play of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith leading an up-tempo, no-huddle UK offense in the loss to U of L, Barnhart says he's hopeful Kentucky fans will see a more enjoyable product in 2012.

Yet the Kentucky AD says he believes other factors also explain UK's problems selling seats in 2012.

Part of it, Barnhart says, is the sluggish economy. There was much discussion in Florida last week about the number of empty seats in The Swamp during the Gators' season opener with Bowling Green.

Says Barnhart: "I looked around on television last Saturday — I was watching some games because we had the day off — and there were a lot of stadiums of some pretty big-time programs who had some gaping holes (in terms of fans) in their stadiums. They've had a lot more success on the field than we have had, yet they had holes. I'm sure there is a piece of the economy that's had a huge impact on that."

An unintended consequence of the new SEC television contract — which means that almost every Southeastern Conference game is available on live TV nationwide — may be that it hurts home attendance for schools whose programs are not at, let's say, a high competitive ebb.

"That has made an impact," Barnhart said of the SEC television contracts. "There are a lot of games on TV. Almost every game in our league."

The flip side of the lucrative SEC TV deals — which presumably will become even more valuable with the additions of Texas A&M (Houston TV market) and Missouri (St. Louis and Kansas City markets) — is that they may produce enough additional revenue that it could mean that empty seats are not the absolute death sentence for a coach's tenure that they used to be.

During Thursday's news conference, Barnhart referred to Phillips as "a guy I dearly love."

Asked what he wants to see from Kentucky football by the end of this season, Barnhart said, "we just want to get better every week. I think we've seen the growth (in the past) and we hope (Phillips) continues to make progress."

After decades of UK fan loyalty far out of proportion to their team's winning percentage, it will be interesting to see what it takes to lure a restive fan base back into a supportive role for Kentucky football.

"We want people in the stands," Barnhart said, "but we've got to earn that back."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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